- Today many black ballerinas find it challenging to be accepted by American ballet companies. They are told that they don’t have the right physique, they are too muscular. Their darker skin keeps them from blending in with the other dancers. And the image of them as “strong black women” doesn’t play well with the more angelic, ephemeral roles in many ballets. So if black ballerinas want to pursue a career in classical ballet, they often have to go to Europe. But things are different at the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, NC. Since it began in 1997, the company has always featured African American dancers as either members of the corps or soloists. The company’s Founder and Artistic Director, Ricky Weiss said, “I always look for the best dancers. I think it’s important to have a diverse company, especially in today’s world.”
Debra Austin is the Ballet Master for the Carolina Ballet. Other than the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Carolina Ballet may be the only professional dance company with an African American in this role. According to Weiss, “(Austin) possesses the gift that few . . . have, which is the understanding of what is good choreography and what is not and that enables her to be a very effective Ballet Master.”
When she was a dancer, Austin made history as the first African American female soloist at the New York City Ballet. The New York Times noted, “ . . while in the New York City Ballet, (Austin’s) smooth open jump and general vivacity there suggested a strong stage presence.”
In 1982, when Austin joined the Pennsylvania Ballet, she became the first African American principal ballerina at a major dance company in the US. Ricky Weiss, then Pennsylvania Ballet’s Artistic Director, said, “Debra Austin had the most beautiful feet and legs of practically any ballerina I ever watched dance”.
Debra Austin began dancing at 8 years of age. At 12, Austin was given a scholarship to the School of American Ballet and at 15 she was asked to join the New York City Ballet. The dance company was established by Lincoln Kirsten and Artistic Director George Balanchine. Their vision was to create a world-class ballet company that would be racially diverse. When Austin joined the New York City Ballet, the media wanted to interview her. “They wouldn’t let me talk about it.” Austin said. “(Balanchine) didn’t want it to be some story. It was just like ‘She’s a member of the company. Period. The end. She’s no color to me.’ He wanted a diverse company but he didn’t want to publicize it like that.”
Austin has performed some of the most important roles in classical ballet. She danced solos in Swan Lake, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Coppelia, Giselle and La Sylphide. She performed in a PBS television special, “Live From Lincoln Center”. Austin also joined the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland and spent two years touring in Europe.
Austin’s amazing ballet career has not been without its challenges. After Ricky Weiss left the Pennsylvania Ballet, the company decided to perform Romeo and Juliet. Despite being a principal dancer, Austin was not considered for the role of Juliet. She was cast as one of the gypsies. She told the director, “Forget it. I’m just not going to be in the ballet.” Austin eventually left the Pennsylvania Ballet and retired from dancing. Austin remains proud of her illustrious career and continues to inspire a new generation of dancers.
Debra Austin ascent in the world of American ballet is a result of her own talents as a phenomenal dancer, Kirsten and Balanchine’s vision for a diverse dance company as well as Ricky Weiss’ ability to focus on what is most important, great dancing. In order for ballet companies to become more diverse a new generation of black dancers must be cultivated and more dance companies like the Carolina Ballet need to provide them with opportunities. It allows black ballerinas like Carmen Felder to pursue their passion. Felder, who joined the Carolina Ballet in 2011, said, “I go to work and I put my pointe shoes on and I wear a tutu. The other day I (had) a mask on and this nurse’s hat and I’m running around having a great time on stage. And in the studio I have friends and we all enjoy doing what we love. It’s a dream come true.”